Mayor Johnson’s “Vision for Cycling in London”: Part Three

 Some more Problems: Cycle Training, Smarter Travel etc.

A key part of the funding (already announced before the publication of the Vision) goes to non-highway (or off-road) infrastructure. I’m absolutely in favour of moving beyond the usual highways and transportation planners fixation on the highway environment. But the spending has to obviously go in the right direction – and I’m not sure it does.

 Beyond infrastructure

There are a number of reasons why it is crucial to support cycling in ways apart from highways and off-road engineering. The loss of a cycling culture in the UK means that there are significant problems in the following areas:

  • Inaccessibility of low cost user-friendly bicycles and cycling equipment. A key demographic feature of cyclists I their middle-class status. While a major reason for working class people being less likely to cycle is the cultural aspiration for car ownership and use, the fact remains that reliable quality bicycles and associated equipment is high. I find it scandalous that the differential between the cost to the user of car and cycle use is so low.
  • Lack of confidence. The loss of a cycling culture has to be met with genuine support. Cycle training has to be empowering  – yet too often appears as an attempt to restrict errant potential cyclists.
  • Absence of convenient and secure home parking. Half the households in London are flats which are mainly not on the ground floor, and many houses do not have the space for convenient and secure home cycle storage.

I can’t say exactly how many people don’t cycle because they can’t afford a reliable bike and accessories, put it somewhere convenient for everyday travel where it won’t get stolen, or were never shown how to ride a bike. But it is likely to be significant.

For example, we know that a third to half of all people cycling in the summer stop when the clocks go back. On top of this, even this winter hard-core are significantly less likely to cycle when it rains. Is it too absurd to suggest that subsidising or allocating good quality wet/cold weather clothing to potential cyclists would help people cycle?

On top of this, there is a simple moral question. There is massive subsidy for people travelling by the less sustainable and healthy modes of public transport. (I’m not even going into the hidden subsidy for private car use). Why shouldn’t cyclists get assistance with equipment, including home parking, to help them cycle as well as necessary improvements to the environment they cycle in?

Yet there are precious few examples of initiatives to address these issues. I am lucky to work on LB Ealing’s Direct Support for Cycling programme (Disclaimer: my views are not necessarily the same as Ealing Council’s), winner of the 2012 National Transport Award for achievements in cycling   and previously LCC and CTC awards.

 What is “cycle training”… ?

A key element of successful encouragement and inspiring confidence is through the right kind of cycle training such as that described here  and here . Modern National Standards (now branded as “Bikeability”) cycle training was introduced by RDRF supporters in York and elsewhere in the late 1990s as an alternative to the defunct “Cycle Proficiency” in an attempt to get beyond “round the comes in the playground” and breed confidence among children and adults to cycle in real world conditions.

But how much that goes under the name of cycle training is actually carried out in this spirit? My impression is that plenty is still based on imparting a message that cycling is inherently hazardous, with a stress on helmets  and hi-viz  . In London there has been controversy over the terms of a pan-London procurement process for cycle training set up for boroughs that couldn’t define their own criteria. And naturally, supporters of Road Danger Reduction would ask why a lot (but not all) of the cycle training is managed by officers working under the “road safety” agenda, rather than cycling specialists.

Coincidentally, the TfL programme of work with children and young people is currently under consultation . It has been heavily lambasted here  for being:

“Pretty miserable stuff, not just because of a failure to address creating safer streets, but also because all this ‘education’ and ‘encouragement’ is only directed at children themselves. There is nothing in this strategy that talks about getting drivers to behave better, or ‘educating’ them to drive more carefully around children. Nothing. It’s victim-blaming of the worst kind…Of the ten ‘initiatives’ TfL are proposing to increase child safety, every single one involves training or educating children. There’s no mention of reducing environmental danger.”

This is perhaps a little unfair as reference to “environmental danger” – or what we would call the source of danger, namely the threats from motor vehicular traffic – is made (partly) in the “Vision” document where there is reference to a safer cycle route environment to schools (p.25). It is also the case that there will have to be some work by transport professionals with children and young people irrespective of highway layout and broader questions of road danger.

However, As Easy as Riding a Bike is basically right: the overall approach of TfL here and other “educational and training” approaches accepts the status quo of road danger. It continues all the dreary repetition of assessing safety in terms of aggregated reported casualties, as if the critique made of the “road safety” lobby in this respect had never happened. It does not empower or enable children as non-motorists now or for the future. Cycling tends to be seen as sport, not as avaible normal form of everyday transport. There is little on the rights of children and non-motorised users. When we are going to see a real critique of the car-centric staus quo in a robust programme for children and young people?

In fact, a critical issue is the way that imbibing the “road safety” message will impact on these young people in a few years when they are quite likely to be motorists themselves. One of the reasons for a victim-blaming culture and acceptance of road danger is precisely the “road safety and education and training” that people have had when at school. Despite an admirable approach of not “dangerising” cycling – while recognising danger and the need for cycling to “feel safer” (the first four paragraphs on page18) in the Vision, I suspect the approach taken in many London boroughs will do the opposite.

…or “Smarter Travel”?

Along with the traditional domain of “road safety” , the last decade has been a stamping ground for “Travel Awareness” and “Smarter Travel” initiatives. Based on informing people about alternatives to car use, its advocates – generally the people who work in this area – claim that these are effective. I am sceptical of these claims. Yet a large proportion of the new ringfenced funding for cycling – through the Boroughs – is in this area.

It is characterised by “talking up” alternatives to car use, rather than pointing out it’s adverse effects on public health and the local and global environment. It is generally referred to as a “soft” approach, and is essentially about marketing.

My view is that non-highway infrastructural approaches are desperately needed, not least to break out of the mind-set of Highway Authorities, however progressive they may appear to be. But it needs to feed into a new social and cultural infrastructure: its aims have to address the very hard issues raised above about the obstacles to cycling which are not just in the physical highway environment. The virtue of Ealing’s Direct Support for Cycling programme is that it is indeed hard in its approach to tackle some of the barriers to cycling that a Council can – if it wants to.

Regrettably, few Boroughs show an interest – although a significant coterie of practitioners have – in this kind of approach. Housing estates feature ample (and free) car parking, but little or none for bicycles. Recovered and second hand bike centres to allow social classes C,D and E to access affordable bikes and accessories are few and far between. Genuine support for actual or potential cyclists is not really on the radar of too many in the boroughs.

My view is that is part of the dominant car-centred transport culture which will need to be addressed to get any real vision off the ground: see the next post…

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